Guest Commentary

Josh Hawley is out of the faith mainstream on political activity in churches

The continual battle of the separation of Church and State has people wondering what is or isn’t legal and if we are removing God from our country. The recent ruling stating the state of Ohio’s motto ‘With God Everything Is Possible’ as unconstitutional is a prime example.
The continual battle of the separation of Church and State has people wondering what is or isn’t legal and if we are removing God from our country. The recent ruling stating the state of Ohio’s motto ‘With God Everything Is Possible’ as unconstitutional is a prime example. File illustration

Baptist preacher Tony Campolo once declared, “Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.” In that light, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has shown up with a pile of manure for churches.

Hawley is making headlines for stating his opposition to the ban on political activity — known popularly as the Johnson Amendment — that prevents churches and many other tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing candidates.

Hawely’s plan, however, would harm houses of worship.

As a Baptist minister with a PhD in political communication, I recognize that the last thing our holy spaces need is partisan politics. And I see the need to correct the record on this issue, as Hawley distorts the purpose and impact of the political activity ban.

First, the political activity ban is not an anti-religious liberty rule. Added to the tax code passed 1954, it treats all tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations the same. Houses of worship are not singled out, nor are they treated unfairly.

While Hawley claims the amendment is “absolutely unconstitutional,” according to a recording posted by the Family Research Council, what he proposes would actually create an unconstitutional establishment of religion by granting religious nonprofits rights not given to secular nonprofits.

Hawley claims this ban is the government telling clergy “what they can or cannot say.” However, clergy can still say whatever they want from the pulpit. They can even endorse candidates if they want. They just cannot do so with a tax exemption. If members of the clergy feel their religious convictions mandate that they engage in partisan politics, they have the right to incorporate under a different set of tax rules.

Second, the political activity ban is not a partisan plot. Critics of the law tout it loudly as the Johnson Amendment (as Hawley did), even though that is not its official name. They hope that by using that name they can tie it to then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, and therefore make it a partisan rule. The historical facts prove otherwise.

While Johnson first added the rule to the proposed legislation, it passed without controversy in a Republican House and a Republican Senate, and then Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law. The political activity ban was later reaffirmed in the 1986 tax code passed by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, then signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Third, the religious and nonprofit communities overwhelmingly oppose repealing the political activity ban. Last year, more than 100 faith groups — including one I work for — sent a letter to Congress supporting the political activity ban. Later in the year, more than 4,500 faith leaders sent a similar letter, as did more than 5,600 nonprofits.

Polls last year found that more than 70 percent of Americans oppose repealing the political activity ban. Additionally, polling shows nearly 90 percent of pastors and nearly 80 percent of church members believe churches should not endorse politicians.

Hawley’s campaign claims he spoke to religious leaders before taking his position against the political activity ban, but does he realize he consulted with the minority opinion? I could probably claim the Detroit Lions are the best football team in America after consulting with a few guys in a bar in Detroit, but that would not make it true.

Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in the Americas and the founder of Rhode Island, argued we need a “hedge” or “wall of separation” to protect the “garden” (the church) from the “wilderness” (the state). We also need something like the political activity ban to protect our ice cream from the manure Hawley is peddling.

Brian Kaylor, associate director for the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, is the author of four books on religion and politics.

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